*The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy can be downloaded as an ebook for free from Amazon*
Back in my early teenage years, bored out of my mind by school, I went through a long phase where just about all I read were horror novels. These books kept me turning pages, and gave me something to do during class, but looking back I can’t say any single book left a long lasting impression on me, nor did any inspire nightmares or any new fears that didn’t end when the book ended. In fact, after finishing a book I was completely glued to, in hindsight the stories took on a completely ludicrous quality, where I’d rub my head and wonder “Why did the hedge animals come to life in The Shining?” or “Who would bury a baby in a pet cemetery?” I wasn’t truly frightened or chilled by a book until I went through a philosophical kick in high school and read several essays by Jean Paul Sartre. Having your ideas undermined and your optimistic ideals subverted can be frightening. I recently had a similar sensation of immense dread when I read Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The only piece of fiction to really frighten me, in the way that new philosophical ideas frighten me, is Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.
The story begins with a group of cosmopolitan travelers in the waning days of Tzarist Russia sharing a train compartment with a man named Pozdnyshev who, after they engage in a philosophical discussion about the nature of marriage, announces to them all that he is a convicted murderer.* Over the course of the train ride, he relates the tale of the events that led up to him murdering his own wife.
What makes the book so chilling is that it’s written in the first person, and that Tolstoy goes into great detail describing how Pozdnyshev’s mental state devolves until murder seems to be the only solution. As the narrator explains, “And the answer had to respond to the mood that I had wrought myself up, which had gone on in a crescendo and it was bound to reach its climax. Madness also has its laws.”**
You’ll notice the word crescendo is used in the quote above as he tries to justify his heinous act. The book’s title The Kreutzer Sonata comes from the work by Beethoven of the same name. Leo Tolstoy is known to have complained and openly voiced his distaste for many pieces of classical music, especially Beethoven. As far as he was concerned, music of that sort was an evil because it inspired men to have emotions that were not their own, to feel things they have no cause to feel, and to be inspired by wills not their own. He expresses that The Kreutzer Sonata is a particularly violent piece of music. Thus, the narrator is incensed into violence partially thanks to some of the most beautiful music ever made (like Alex from A Clockwork Orange).
Tolstoy’s attitude seems to suggest that romantic love was ultimately an encumbrance on life, one that kept the lovers from achieving their full potential and that created a friction that could lead to insanity and worse. Keep in mind, The Kreutzer Sonata was written after he had completed Anna Karenina and when his depression worsened and his moralizing became more overt. Also keep in mind that Tolstoy himself would leave his wife for good by boarding a train.***
What’s also frightening about this book is that it deals with pleasures turning into madness. It’s not a cliched story about a man taking on vices like gambling or drug use then killing people, it’s instead about a man for whom the good things in life–love and music–inspire madness. It’s this stark philosophical aspect of the story that makes The Kreutzer Sonata stand out in my mind. I can hardly think back on the book without shuddering.
Bottom Line: While this book doesn’t feature vampires or pools of blood, it will very likely frighten you with its look at a darkly perturbed mind. It’s only about 90 pages, and is not very difficult.
If you want to read something short by Tolstoy that’s not so disturbing, check out The Death of Ivan Ilych.
*Luis Bunuel made a film called That Obscure Object of Desire that appropriates the premise of The Kreutzer Sonata, this time with an upper-class gentlemen explaining to to the people in his train compartment how a young woman managed to make him completely and maddeningly miserable.
** The deranged narrator that Tolstoy created definitely owes something to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I’d speculate that Tolstoy’s creation likewise inspired Nabokov in his creation of Hermann, the disturbed yet urbane narrator of Despair.
*** An okay movie was made of this called The Last Station. Christopher Plummer is an excellent Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren is great as Sophia, but there’s an annoying subplot involving James McAvoy falling in love with one of Tolstoy’s followers, and this only slows and weakens the movie.
If you enjoyed this review of The Kreutzer Sonata, check out my review of another of Leo Tolstoy’s novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.